There’s a business on Whidbey Island that has been in the same location since it was founded in 1917. What’s more, it’s had just two owners in the past 100 years, and this year its current owner is about to celebrate his 50th anniversary in charge.
It’s Prairie Center Market in Coupeville, and Ken Hofkamp and a couple of partners bought it in 1972 from the Pickard family, who had owned it since 1921. Ken was just 24 years old when he became Central Whidbey’s chief grocer.
He’s a soft-spoken man but he looks back over the last 50 years with much satisfaction. He’s planning no big celebration, but this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. he’ll be handing out free hot dogs, coffee, cookies and ice cream bars as a thank you to the community.
“We have a very loyal customer base and I have some really great long-time managers and employees,” he said, adding “and we have a good selection for a small store. We’ve never added a square foot of space to the main store but we manage to compete with Safeway and other big stores in Oak Harbor.” (Prairie Center Market has about 10,000 square feet. Safeway has about five times that.)
Former Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard, who has worked for several years as Hofkamp’s office manager, added another reason that Prairie Center Market remains successful despite bigger competition. “This is more than a grocery store,” she said. “I call this town hall south, the place where people in our area meet and greet and also do their grocery shopping.”
The world has changed dramatically since Hofkamp arrived at the store on the corner of South Main Street and Terry Road. When he bought it, it was still called Prairie Mercantile and in addition to groceries it sold clothing, hardware, garden equipment and even guns and ammunition. At the time, Whidbey Island was mostly a rural place with a lot of farms, one big Navy base and relatively few tourists. In 1970, the population of Island County was about 27,000; by 2020 it had more than tripled to 83,000.
Prairie Mercantile opened in 1917 to serve the farmers in Ebey’s Prairie, selling everything from livestock supplies to lumber to mattresses and knitting yarn. The Pickards — first Moritz and his wife Ernestine and then their son Herb and his wife Muriel — became beloved pillars of the community by offering credit to farmers during the Great Depression and generously supporting local organizations.
By the time Hofkamp arrived, Highway 525/20 from Clinton to Deception Pass had only been open for about eight years. Traffic was generally light and relatively few tourists made the trek to the island.
Hofkamp was born in Minnesota and moved to Oak Harbor with his family when he was nine years old. He graduated from Oak Harbor High School with the class of 1966. While in his junior year, he began working at Payless Foods, which at the time had a supermarket in Oak Harbor. (Payless later relocated to its big store in Freeland.)
He became close with Robert Blain and his family, the owners of Payless, and he worked his way up from box boy to various manager-level jobs. The Blains and another Payless manager named Ron Huff became the major partners with Ken Hofkamp to put together the deal to acquire Prairie Center Market. “Being the ‘kid,’ they decided I’d be the one sent to Coupeville to manage this new acquisition.”
Hofkamp bought out the Blain interest in the mid-1980s and Huff’s interest in 1996, finally making him the store’s sole owner.
“The first couple of decades here were a struggle,” he recalled. “Everything was pretty old and we had to do a lot of remodeling. We made do with whatever money we were making because it was too expensive to borrow it.”
When he arrived, the store had no coolers except one small one for milk that sat far in the back. It had one small freezer section. Produce consisted of one small 20-foot case near the front of the store. In 1972, the cash registers were old models with push buttons. Everything had to be individually priced; scanners didn’t come for more than 20 years.
The biggest change through the years, however, has been what’s on the store shelves to meet the changing tastes of consumers. When he took over, the store was divided into three aisles for groceries, three aisles for clothing and three aisles for hardware, including guns and fishing gear. In the back of the store where the large produce section is now was a garden supply area with shovels, gloves, seeds and other paraphernalia.
Today, the produce section occupies a much-expanded area in the rear to meet the demand from customers for fresh fruits and vegetables and, increasingly, organic varieties. Outside the store in warmer months a large tent is erected to sell whatever is freshly harvested at various farms.
The meat case is much larger now to meet the increased demand for varieties; Prairie Center has its own meat-cutting and meat-wrapping department. Freezers now occupy both sides of an aisle to accommodate the dramatically increased amount of frozen food now available.
Another change: Out front on South Main Street stood two gasoline pumps that had been there for at least 30 years before Hofkamp arrived. He kept them for another 30 years before tearing them out in in 2013, deciding it was no longer a business for a grocery store. By then, gas stations had multiplied up and down the island.
Removing the pumps gave Hofkamp the chance he always wanted to sell plants and flowers out front. It’s one of his favorite parts of the store and he’s frequently spotted in the morning, hose in hand, watering the various plants and veggie starts on the outside shelves facing South Main Street.
Another change occurred in 2012, when Washington voters approved an initiative that permitted grocery stores to sell hard liquor. Prairie Center Market installed a tall rack in front of the cash registers that offers a wide variety of spirits.
Given all those changes over the past 50 years, did he ever think of building a bigger, modern Prairie Center Market? There was a chance for him to build a new store when the Coupe’s Village development just up Main Street was created in the 1990s. But he decided the space there wasn’t much bigger than what he had, so he stayed in the original spot. “Instead I bought some surrounding land to expand our parking lot and eventually I bought the lumber yard next door,” he said. (That’s now leased to Frontier Lumber.)
The kid from Oak Harbor who took over the market has also since become a beloved pillar of the Central Whidbey community. He has served on the Coupeville town council, the boards of the local chamber of commerce, the Island County Historical Museum, the Lions Club, the county Economic Development Council and the local food bank He’s been a Little League coach and president of the Central Whidbey Athletic Board.
So, at the age of 74, is he thinking of retiring or selling the business? “It’s running smoothly and I don’t have to work as hard as I used to,” he said. “I like coming into work. But I suppose if someone came along and wanted to buy it — and it was the right person — I’d probably sell it. Check out the emphasis in what he said there. “The right person.” Just like he was in 1972.